Saving grace in sports has to come from within

A call for civility: it’s time for those who have been a part of the problem to become leaders in finding a solution

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla Softball coaches Andi Adams of Fort Dodge and Bob Horner of Mason City meet with an umpire before a game at Rogers Park last summer.

Nothing unifies quite like sports. It brings people from different walks of life together to create a culture of teamwork and cohesion. Personal beliefs and disagreements are typically an afterthrought in the athletic arena. As societal issues continue to divide us, our local teams have always been there to integrate.

The beauty of high school sports, in particular, is its purity. The money, power and corruption often associated with the professional and even collegiate ranks is not a pressing concern. By and large, kids play for the love of the game and loyalty to their community. There are always exceptions to this rule, of course, but for all intents and purposes, it’s a well that hasn’t been poisoned.

Yet.

To assume it never could be is naive. Why? The constantly-evolving competitive nature of sports, for one. But greed, ego and an overall lack of perspective are the more sinister forces behind what is quickly becoming a bleak future for high school athletics.

This lack of balance is already creating a ripple effect through the prep ranks in Iowa. An officiating shortage is looming large on the horizon, for instance, with many older referees and umpires bowing out and very few replacement options in site. While there are a multitude of reasons for the turnover, the biggest issue I hear on a consistent basis from area officials young and old is treatment.

Oftentimes, high school coaches are in the same boat. Like referees and umpires, these men and women typically get involved for selfless reasons, not pay or prestige. Yet like referees and umpires, there is very little respect for their efforts anymore.

And that’s really what it all boils down to: respect.

When a parent or fan attends a sporting event, are bad calls an inevitability? Absolutely. And will coaches make mistakes? Without question.

But does that give any of us the right to go on the attack and berate the people in charge? Deep down, we all know the answer. Or at least, we damn well should.

As teams work toward a common goal and develop bonds and relationships that will last a lifetime — exactly what sports are intended to do — we’re often creating a toxic environment within literal shouting distance. In the stands, overblown anger vilifies officials and coaches alike, who are almost always simply doing the best they can.

I’m not expecting perfection from the crowd, but they shouldn’t be expecting perfection from the product, either. This isn’t about the drive to compete or the will to win, which is natural. This is about basic human decency.

We need to be careful. Whether most realize it or not, high school athletics are in a danger zone. Officials have reached a breaking point. Coaches have reached a breaking point. The solution is simple: show more tact and restraint at athletic events.

I’ve seen ugly behavior and heard deplorable comments much more often in recent years. This isn’t a Fort Dodge thing. It doesn’t apply to one particular sport, or gender, or demographic. And it’s not festering solely at the high school level, sadly enough.

While the individual support system around our children is arguably stronger than ever — time and resources are being invested in athletic futures like never before — the communal support for the system is falling apart. If we truly cherish the values and lessons learned from athletics, we must hold ourselves more accountable from afar.

We’re either willing to make a more concerted effort to respect positions of authority in youth sports, or we’re willing to risk throwing it all away. And every short-term battle with an official or coach means we lose the war a little more.

A change in attitude and a shift in culture isn’t just needed — it’s imperative. For the sake of our kids, it’s time we all start acting like adults.

Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, by e-mail at sports@messengernews.net, or on Twitter @MessengerSports

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